Last year, 13-year-old Chris Ruckman ran the Sycamore Pumpkin Run with his mother and their family team, the “Rich Farms Runners.” His 12-year-old brother, Jack, was there as well, cheering them all on.
Sunday, Heidi (Walter) Agustsson, Chris and Jack’s mother, ran her hometown race again with many of her family members and friends. Her sons, however, were only there in spirit, as their lives were tragically taken last February by their father.
Before the start of the race, organizers called for a moment of silence to honor the Ruckman brothers.
Knowing that family and friends would all be together for the 40th Annual Pumpkin Run, Agustsson’s cousin, Bill Fraedrich of Sycamore, emailed a statement to the Race Director, Rose Treml, requesting that they remember the Ruckman boys during the event:
“If we could now offer a moment of silence for two young men, one of which ran this race last year, Christopher Ruckman, and his brother Jack who was here to cheer him on. They lost their lives last spring. Their family is here today to run, as they have done for many years, in their honor. Christopher and Jack always encouraged others to do better and be better. So let us remember these two young men and all of those who have left us this year too soon. May we always strive to do better and be better in their honor.”
Not only did Treml decide to have a moment before the race to honor Chris and Jack, but she also registered Chris as a runner and gave him the prized Bib #1 with his name on it. In addition, she issued the bib number Chris wore last year to his mother. Heidi Agustsson wore both bibs as she completed the 10k road race on Sunday.
“I want to give kudos to [Rose Treml],” said Fraedrich. “She took this and ran with it beyond anything I even expected.”
Fraedrich, whose own children come back to Sycamore each year to run the race, said he is reminded by this terrible loss to not take anything for granted, since none of us know how much time we have.
“This race means so much more to me than what the time is at the end of the race,” said Fraedrich. “I did my part, but what [Heidi’s] going through is so much tougher. I hope this helps to get her through each day.”
Heidi Agustsson grew up in Sycamore and graduated from Sycamore High School in 1993. Her father’s side of the family are the Walters, who are farmers in DeKalb. Her uncle Jim and cousin Jamie are the founders of Whiskey Acres Distilling.
Her mother’s side of the family have been farmers in the area for over 100 years. Rich road is named after them. Her cousin, Eric Rich, owns Five Points Pub in Kingston and they celebrate Thanksgivings there. Her sons would ride in the tractors and help her grandparents with the harvest in Sycamore. That’s why even though the boys were born and lived their whole lives in the Rockford area, they are now buried in Elmwood Cemetery in her family’s plot.
Agustsson’s mother, Jean Walter, loves to run and was a teacher and cross country coach at Belvidere South Middle School for many years. All the women in their family usually do the Pumpkin Run. One year, they were teasing Heidi’s grandfather that he should buy them uniforms, and they began creating a shirt each year for the “Rich Farms Runners.” This year, they wore “Vitamin Gang” shirts, which was the name of Chris and Jack’s band.
Also, the official race shirt this year just happened to be blue, which was Jack’s favorite color and has special significance to the family. When the boys died, people wanted to know what they could do and they told them to just wear blue to show they were thinking about them. They made blue infinity ribbons to signify that the boys would be together forever and handed them out in the community. People tied the blue ribbons everywhere, Agustsson said.
Agustsson said she has done the Pumpkin Run on and off about 15 times since high school. They started the Rich Farms Runners group around 2007 when the boys were little. Christopher was on the cross country team at his school and Jack, who was more into baseball, would cheer him on.
“Hopefully, I won’t embarrass [Chris] on the time,” joked Agustsson.
About a half hour before the race, friends and family met in front of the Armory. They posed for a group photo and took a moment to remember the boys. Five minutes before the race started, the announcer read the short message that Heidi wrote and then tried to quiet down the hundreds of runners for a moment of silence.
Agustsson said that while the idea of honoring her boys before the run started out as a small thing, it snowballed.
“Lots of people are interested. Lots of people are going to be there,” said Agustsson. “Then your kids are remembered for their life, not for their death. How great is that?”
She said she can’t express enough gratitude to the community who rallied behind her after this tragedy. Her high school classmates raised thousands of dollars to buy a bench in Elmwood Cemetery that says, “In loving memory of the Band of Brothers” and has the boys’ names on it.
“Definitely, my home town, I’m so proud to be from there,” Agustsson said. “They just really support and rally around people who need it.”
Heidi’s mission now is to be an inspiration to people who are struggling with grief, who can see her challenges and hopefully believe they can get through their own.
“You definitely cry every day. I’m not going to lie about that. It’s still pretty raw, eight months in,” said Agustsson. “But every day you have to get up and think, ‘Today, my choice is to push forward. I have to do something to honor their lives, so what am I going to do?'”
She said she’s met a lot of mothers who have the same horror story as her. She believes that having the support of family, friends and community helps people to not just shut down after having to bury their children.
“That’s why I’m so lucky to be from a small town who steps up,” said Agustsson. “Whether you’re from Kingston or Genoa or Sycamore, you really are fortunate.”
Agustsson gave the eulogy at the funeral service for her boys and challenged those in attendance to assess what they are doing to make this world a better place. She encouraged people to “do better and be better,” which has become the slogan she uses to inspire herself and others. She points out that the positive impact of her sons had a ripple effect throughout the community.
“Everyone has their struggles. Everyone carries their burdens and you have to be mindful of that,” said Agustsson. “I think if people could just be a little nicer to each other, it would go a long way.”
Chris and Jack Ruckman Music Scholarship Fund
Besides being cherished members of their families and their communities, Christopher and Jack Ruckman were also talented musicians. Chris was well-known around the Rockford area for being a self-taught guitar prodigy and performed the National Anthem before several athletic events. He played the piano and guitar in his high school jazz band and drums in the Rockford Drum Corps. He was also able to share the stage with music greats such as Harlan Jefferson and performed with the Atlanta All Stars in Nashville.
Jack was a drummer and played in “The Vitamin Gang” band with his older brother. He was a member of the Junior High Jazz Band and Rockford Christian Drum Corps.
After Chris and Jack’s untimely death, their family decided that they should be “remembered for the amazing people they were, not how their lives full of promise were stolen from them.” So their mother started a not-for-profit organization, the Chris and Jack Ruckman Memorial Scholarship Fund.
The first scholarship recipient ended up going to college to major in music, but Heidi Agustsson said they’re not necessarily looking for music majors.
“We’re looking for people who just really have a passion for music,” said Agustsson. “Classically-trained, rock—whatever it is that we can support on behalf of the kids.”
While Agustsson is the public spokesman for the scholarship fund, she said it’s really the community and her family who have stepped up and helped them get to where they are in such a short amount of time.
Much of the scholarship fund is earmarked specifically for Rockford Christian students, but there is a portion that Agustsson can use for other deserving kids.
“We encourage all local students, whether they are from Sycamore, [Rockford], or the DeKalb area [to submit requests],” said Agustsson. “If music is their passion, we will find a way to buy them instruments, send them to band camp—really just encourage and nurture their love for music. That’s something that my kids definitely had.”
They also get donations of used musical instruments that they rehab and then give away.
Agustsson said that down the road they would like to expand the fund’s reach beyond just the local area.
People can submit requests to Heidi Agustsson through the Scholarship Fund Facebook page or by mail at P.O. Box 398, Cherry Valley, IL 61016.
Donations can be made directly to the Scholarship Fund:
501c tax ID# 362469118
Chris and Jack Ruckman Memorial Scholarship
Rockford Christian School
1401 N Bell School Rd
Rockford, IL 61107